Archive for November, 2008

Toldot: Bringing Our Best Selves

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

This week’s haftarah, for the Torah portion Toldot, is the opening
chapter of the Book of Malachi (plus a few verses from chapter 2.)
It’s not entirely clear exactly when the prophet lived, or even who he
was, since “malachi” means “my messenger” in Hebrew and thus the name
of the prophet could simply be a literary device.

Another interesting aspect of the text is the rhetoric of dialogue
that the prophet uses to rebuke the people for their lack of attention
to religious matters- he proposes something and then portrays how the
people would answer back. For example, in the second verse of the
text, the prophet, speaking in the name of God, portrays the people as
lacking in basic faith:

“I have shown you love, said the Lord. But you ask, ‘How have You
shown us love? ‘ ” (Malachi 1:2)

Although the putative connection between our haftarah and the Torah
portion is the comparison of the nation descended from Ya’akov to the
nation descended from his brother Esav (the struggle between the
brothers is the major theme of the Torah portion), I think there is
another message as well.

As the prophet rebukes the people for being lax and stingy in how the
make their religious offerings, it seems that it’s not so much the
fact of imperfect or lesser-quality offerings that is offensive but
rather the attitude, the inner state, of the people who bring them.
For example:

“A curse on the cheat who has an [unblemished] male in his flock, but
for his vow sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord! For I am a
great King-said the Lord of Hosts-and My name is revered among the
nations.” (1:14)

As I read it this passage, it’s not so much about the animal, but
about the “cheat” whose religious behavior is cynical and selfish.
While it’s true that the Torah prescribes certain kinds of offerings-
such as unblemished animals- and proscribes others- such as maimed
ones- it also seems to me that the prophet is saying: you are beloved,
and desired for spiritual relationship with the Holy One, but a
covenantal relationship requires effort and commitment. If you put
only a half-hearted effort into your spiritual life, don’t expect
great things from it.

So often Judaism is criticized as “legalistic” or ritual is dismissed
as superstition. Certainly religious ritual is not magic, working
regardless of the inner life of the one who prays. This, to me, is the
prophet’s rebuke to the people: one cannot just do rituals without
bringing one’s best self to the practice and expect wonderful results.
“Best self” does not mean we’re perfect- it means that we’re trying as
best we can to be whole and honest and of integrity before the Source
of Life.

When we do this, ritual becomes transformative; when we “cheat,” just
going through the motions, it can be boring and lifeless. That’s what
the prophet wants the people to understand, then as now.

Shabbat Shalom (and happy Thanksgiving to my American readers),

RNJL

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Chayei Sarah: Legacies Unforeseen

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

This week we read the Torah portion Chayei Sarah, which deals with the
death of Sarah and Avraham’s subsequent efforts to find a wife for his
son Yitzhak. In the haftarah, another patriarch, King David, also has
to make arrangements for the orderly transition of generations- but he
does so in reaction to a palace plot by one of his sons to take the
kingship from another.

You can read the details of how the plot is foiled in the second link,
below, but what is interesting to me is the prologue to the whole
story- which is actually the prologue to the entire Book of Kings,
since our haftarah starts with chapter 1, verse 1. In this prologue to
the palace intrigue, the elderly King David is cold and weak, and his
advisers call for a young girl to lay with him to warm him:

“King David was now old, advanced in years; and though they covered
him with bedclothes, he never felt warm. His courtiers said to him,
‘Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, to wait upon Your
Majesty and be his attendant; and let her lie in your bosom, and my
lord the king will be warm.’ So they looked for a beautiful girl
throughout the territory of Israel. They found Abishag the Shunammite
and brought her to the king. The girl was exceedingly beautiful. She
became the king’s attendant and waited upon him; but the king was not
intimate with her.” (1 Kings 1:1-4)

What strikes me is not so much the contrast between this image of
David and early stories of his military and physical powers, but the
contrast between one’s expectations regarding how a family might care
for an elderly patriarch and the lonely man portrayed in these opening
verses. King David had wives, children, and grandchildren- surely one
of them could have stayed by his side to keep him warm? Where is
David’s family when the stranger is called in to lie down with him?
The scene recalls David’s taking of Bathsheva, in that a beautiful
woman is regarded as little more than an object for the King’s
service, yet in this case, it’s not about sex- it’s about an intimate
act of caregiving, now given to strangers.

I read this short passage as emotional background for what follows: a
family divided over power, legacy, and privilege. Perhaps the prologue
shows us that a man who has lived his life exercising power over
others has little hope of being cared for by his loved ones when his
efficacy wanes. David’s power was in his body, his courage, his
cunning, his charisma, his daring, and his strength. Yet when power
fades, love remains, but only if it is planted by countless small acts
over a lifetime.

It seems to me that David’s family, squabbling over the succession,
is doing what their father taught them to do by his example, rather
than doing what he most needs at the end of his life. Thus our
haftarah poses not only a contrast with Avraham, but a challenge to
the rest of us: how shall we live such that peace follows our passing?

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Vayera: Filling Empty Vessels

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

This week’s haftarah is from 2 Kings, and tells stories of the prophet
Elisha, the disciple of Elijah, who worked wonders of healing and
teaching among the people.

The haftarah is connected to the Torah portion, Vayera, through the
themes of desperation and new hope, and in one particularly striking
image Elisha tells a poor woman, who has creditors knocking at the
door, to borrow empty vessels- jugs and pots- from her neighbors. The
woman had only one jar of oil, but Elisha told her to seclude herself
in her house with her children and pour out the oil from her one jug
into the borrowed vessels- and the oil kept flowing, filling all the
containers and enabling her to pay off her debts. (2 Kings 4:1-7).

This image- of the poor woman pouring out oil into borrowed vessels-
strikes me as a powerful metaphor for renewal in the face of
hopelessness. She had to reach out and draw upon the resources of
others- borrowing the empty containers- in order to discover that she
had more than she knew. Sometimes, when we feel empty and bereft of
strength or creativity, our greatest stumbling block is ill-timed
solitude, a retreat into despair rather than a leap of faith into
community and friendship. Once the poor woman had connected with
others, things “opened up” in new and unexpected ways, and so too may
it be for each of us, that the power of community, fellowship and
mutuality may overcome pessimism and fear.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Lech-Lecha: Strength for the Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

This week’s haftarah is again from Isaiah, and like most selections
from the latter half of Isaiah, the theme is faith, hope and ultimate
redemption.

It’s a great text for this week, in light of the historic election
here in the United States- but for subtle and historical reasons. The
haftarah uses metaphors for faith which remind us to take the long view:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is God from of old,
Creator of the earth from end to end,
He never grows faint or weary,
His wisdom cannot be fathomed.
He gives strength to the weary,
Fresh vigor to the spent.
Youths may grow faint and weary,
And young men stumble and fall;
But they who trust in the Lord shall renew their strength
As eagles grow new plumes:
They shall run and not grow weary,
They shall march and not grow faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

Note the contrast between God as tireless in the first part of this
passage, compared with the image of the faithful ones in the latter
part: they shall run but not grow weary. History is like a march: it
takes stamina, determination, and sufficient spiritual clarity to
overcome the inevitable discouragement and setbacks.

Now, please note, the give and take of human politics is never to be
confused with a religious vision for society; to do so debases
religion and corrupts it. Having said that, sometimes religious
language gives richer meaning to events with historical significance-
or, to put it another way, if language rooted in religious traditions
can be used without embarrassment in describing something, perhaps
that in itself can help us understand what is of true significance and
what is not.

To that end, I think it’s fair to say that many Americans, across the
religious and political spectrum, experienced this week’s election of
an African-American to the Presidency as redemptive moment in American
history. Regardless of party affiliation, who could not be moved by
the pictures of elderly and young alike being moved to tears, to
dance, to shouts of joy, upon realizing that America had just done
something unimaginable a mere 40 years ago?

In 1967, Martin Luther King evoked the language of the prophets when
he preached faith, taking the long view, to those in the midst of the
civil rights struggle:

“Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage
to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet
new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of
freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of
despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights,
let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe,
working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is
able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into
bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long
but it bends toward justice.” (Link below.)

Faith, in this view, is not dependence on miracles or believing the
irrational. It is action without despair- or, as Clarence Jordan put
it, faith is not belief in spite of evidence but a life in scorn of
the consequences. That is the significance of faith- it keeps your
feet moving when the spirit grows weary. That is the kind of faith
that is ultimately rewarded- not the kind of faith that believes
without evidence, but the kind of faith that says: never stop marching
towards justice. That is the kind of faith that kept the Jewish people
hoping for Zion throughout thousands of years of exile; that is the
kind of faith that sustained so many in this country until the day
they could see barriers of race forever discredited.

To those without hope, Isaiah says: keep walking, the journey is long,
but faith sustains the weary.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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